Friday, September 23, 2011

The Birth of an Industry

At first everyone thought films were a novelty.   Early distribution forced the theatre owners to buy the prints of films they were showing.  This didn’t work out well for the exhibitors.  As a result, it wasn’t a good business proposition to show a film. 

In 1903 the Miles brothers from San Francisco established the modern form of distribution by setting up the first film exchange.   They bought the prints and leased them to exhibitors at a much lower cost than buying the film outright. As a result film became an economical win for everyone involved.  This caught on rapidly. Nickelodeons sprang up all over the world and it was apparent film was here to stay.  

Exterior Nickelodeon Interior Nickelodeon

People became hungry for new films, regardless of quality, and studios churned them out.  As a result film didn’t change all that much. Between 1903 and 1912 there aren’t many noteworthy creative achievements or experiments – except for a few shorts by D.W.Griffith.  What did change was the amount of film which could be produced.

Early Film setOriginally all film had to be shot with sunlight. This meant that films could only be shot in good weather.  However, with the invention of the mercury vapour lamp several film companies were able to build indoor studios and thereby increase their production.   Still most studios shot outside, and all shot on very low budgets with no retakes of scenes.  Most filmmakers believed what they were doing was grinding out cheap entertainment, and they were.

But even if the filmmakers weren’t taking movies seriously, other groups were.  Once the Nickelodeons sprung up and organised religion and the political right realised movies weren’t going away, they mounted campaigns to suppress them. Between 1907 and 1909 it became commonplace for minsters, politicians and business to be against the movie industry.  Today it’s thought these campaigns were more economically than morally minded because people were frequenting  Nickelodeons and spending their money there rather than at churches, saloons, and vaudeville theatres.

Another issue facing the early industry was piracy. There were no copyright law for “living pictures”.  Exhibitors pirated copies of the films and showed them.  Worse, since the equipment was patented and a fee was expected by those who used it, production companies were pirating equipment.  Anything produced by that pirated equipment was considered the property of the production company that made it.   So even the laws that did govern the industry were difficult to enforce.

In 1909, Edison and a group of patent holders created the MPPC (The Motion Pictures Patent Company) – a trust (a polite word for monopoly) that would try to control the film industry.  Joining the trust was Eastman Kodak, the largest producer of film stock.  The MPPC controlled who got equipment, who got film stock and who got distributed – at least in the United States.

What held film back, at least in the US, was that the MPPC believed film audiences had a short attention span.  Therefore they would only supply one reel of film per week to member companies and they would only distribute films of that length.  So because of the MPPC,  audiences in the US were watching epic plays like King Lear or novels like Frankenstein boiled down to under 15 minutes.

However, the feature film was about to be born. In the US filmmakers like D.W. Griffith tried to distribute two reel films, one reel each week - which didn't work because of continuity issues.  But, in other parts of the world filmmakers started making longer films and despite what Edison might have thought, the longer films captured the audience's attention.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Shot in the Narrative

The shot is more than just a close-up.  It is an integral part of what film is today.  A film is a series of shots put together through editing to fictionalize an event - to tell the tale of it. 

Méliès had discovered that two different pieces of film can be put together to create the illusion of something which couldn’t possibly happen.  Now it was time to use that knowledge to create the illusion that something was happening.  Something real.  

The two discoveries that were made which made narrative film possible were the close-up and parallel editing.  

The close-up was cut into  Méliès tableaus in order to bring the viewer closer to a specific action.  To show them detail  of the action happening while it happens. 

Parallel editing was editing two different simultaneous lines of action together into one line of action.

Firemen spray the exterior of a building.  Inside a baby cries as flames near its crib. Outside a fireman climbs a creaky ladder.   Inside a mother tries to cross a line of fire to reach her baby. 

Around the same time that Méliès was active in France a couple of English gentlemen from Brighton were experimenting with both of these concept -- George Albert Smith and James Williamson.

James Williamson was supposedly the discoverer of parallel editing.  I say supposedly because the films I’ve found don’t seem to match up with the history I’ve read.  Plus the history even says many of these early films don’t exist in their original shape.  Take for example this film:

It’s supposed to contain examples of parallel editing but I just don’t see them.  If you happen to find a copy of this film or  Stop Thief or Attack on a China Mission that contain good examples of parallel editing or if you happen to see it in this film then please let me know.

Funnily enough  while searching through the web, I discovered Williamson’s most popular films today seem to be the following.

The second film, The Big Swallow, claims to be the first close-up.  

However, historically the discoverer of the close-up is considered to be George Albert Smith (our other English gentleman).  And the first example of a close-up I can find from him is in this film from 1900.  So it seems that maybe he actually is.

Other films from G. A. Smith that are of interest are the first Christmas film from 1898. You can see the Méliès influence in this one.

And also this tragically funny film from 1903 called Mary Jane’s Mishap.  That’s Smith’s wife in the lead.

And last but not least I made an error in the Méliès post and attributed this film to him.  It’s actually Smith’s film. Méliès made a film of the same name a year earlier – proof of the competition that early filmmakers faced and that they had good knowledge of their competitors. 

Then in steps Edwin Porter a projectionist for the Edison company until he became a director in his own right.  He started out directing a few actualitiés then, after picking up on the narrative advances of Méliès, Smith and Williamson, directed the first true narrative film, The Life of an American Fireman. 

I found this copy of the film which has subtitled information on the important narrative structure (Thanks to Ashley Hughes). This film has no sound so crank up your tunes.

Life of an American Fireman Narrative Structure from Ashley Hughes on Vimeo.

However, there is some controversy about this being the first narrative film because two copies exist.  One with parallel editing and one without.  No one is certain which came first and the second may have come much later than the first.

So the first indisputable narrative film is the Great Train Robbery. 

However, even that film has it’s controversy.  Many believe it was “borrowed” from this earlier British film.

Either way the shot and narrative film were out of the bottle and there was no putting them back.  The way was paved, the structure in place, for the upcoming great silent directors like D.W. Griffith.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

The first narrative films

Up until around 1896 all films were recordings of real time events.  Some may have told limited stories but ultimately they were the equivalent of sketches or stage acts.

The man credited with discovering the potential of film as a narrative device (and also it’s potential for trickery) was Georges Méliès.  The story goes that  Méliès  while filming an actualitié, he was filming a bus coming out of a tunnel and the film jammed.  When he got the film started again the bus had been replaced by a hearse.  When the film was projected it seemed like the bus had transformed into a hearse.  Nothing like having the first epiphany about the power of film editing.

As the father of special effects George Méliès made use of what he had learned.

He was the first to put editing to narrative use though, because he thought of his films in terms of theatre, as a series of tableaus which he edited together.

He also made extensive use of tinting. He had a shop full of ladies that hand tinted his films. He is probably best remembered for his masterpiece Le Voyage Dans La Lune (Voyage to the Moon).  The first sci-fi film.

You can watch the complete film here.  Méliès went on to make many other films until he was put out of business by Pathé Frères in 1923. Hand tinting was expensive.

Unfortunately Méliès never quite went beyond the use of his discovery for trickery or scene changes. To discover a “shot” it would take a light bulb moment from a projectionist named Edwin S Porter who worked for Edison Corporation in New York.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Earliest Films

The earliest films were non-narrative documents of mundane events or entertainment acts.  The competing companies where those that had projectors.  In the US, Edison Company had the Kinetoscope.  In France, the Lumière Brothers had the Cinematograph.  And in England, Charles Jenkins had the Phantoscope (which was the first machine to project a motion picture).

Cinematograph detail_12_clip_image023[1]

There earliest known surviving celluloid film was shot by by Louis Le Prince on October 14, 1888 in Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England.

Edison Company produced many short films using the Kinetograph, the most famous of which (for some reason or other) was Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894).  This was considered a documentary.

However, the sneeze wasn’t the earliest.  The earliest by Edison that I could find was Dickson’s Greeting (1891).  Dickson invented the Kinetograph technology for Edison.

Other Edison films were entertainment acts.  Edison Co were trying to make money after all and the best way to do that was to entertain.  Here’s a compilation of some early Edison films for your enjoyment.

The Lumière Brothers were also interested in cashing in on this new medium with their actualités.  Here’s a compilation of their films for your enjoyment.

But most of these short films were for the Nickelodeon arcade traffic.  Soon, films would become longer and they would start to tell stories. 

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